HOW TO HAVE A SUCCESSFUL RELATIONSHIP
Takeaway: I’m a couples therapist in Denver, and my clients often ask me questions like, “What makes a relationship successful?” or “How do you have a successful relationship?” These specific questions can be incredibly challenging to answer because relationships can be very complicated. These answers can also be confusing if you find yourself from a lineage of divorce, a not-so-great depiction of a loving partnership from your parents, and/or you witness your peers’ relationships are all over the map. Because we all know that social media and Hollywood films don’t often portray the realness of relationships, I felt it was important to write a blog to better help others understand what a successful relationship is and what it could even look like.
What is a successful relationship? What does a successful relationship even look like? We may have all wondered these questions at some point in our life.
Often, my clients and I use words such as healthy or successful when describing goals within their treatment. Many of my clients initially start their process with describing their conflicts and frustrations. It’s not uncommon to hear, “The way we argue is unhealthy. We desperately need help communicating so we can have a successful relationship.”
A common misconception is learning to communicate more effectively will fix your relational issues with your girlfriend, boyfriend, spouse, or partner. Although my counseling style teaches better communication and listening skills, it is not the only component to creating a successful relationship. Although communication is a key factor in enhancing understanding and facilitating connection, it is in my opinion, that communication itself can’t sustain a successful relationship or deepen the connection and intimacy entirely.
MYTHS ABOUT SUCCESSFUL RELATIONSHIPS
So… then, what the heck is a successful relationship and what’s the effective recipe to get there?
“A healthy, successful relationship” is an evolution of two people that possess the same level of commitment, self-awareness/vulnerability and mutual respect.
Unfortunately, a successful relationship does not have a finish line and it’s more about feeling a deep sense of security rather than having a distinguishable accomplishment within the partnership. It challenges our traditional definitions of “success,” and it begins when two people know and understand themselves (or are consistently open to trying to).
The evolution of creating a successful relationship happens when two people push their own boundaries to jeopardize their emotional safety with each other. It happens when both partners really understand themselves to the core of their emotions, needs, behaviors and insecurities. This is the bulk of vulnerability, which inspires natural relational growth and security.
To be clear, being in a successful relationship does not void you or your partner of struggle, nor does it mean you are an expert communicator at all times. Creating a successful relationship is more about knowing yourself well enough to acknowledge when you’re reacting in a way that is pushing your partner away. It’s forcing yourself to be vulnerable no matter how terrifying it may be. It’s committing to your own self-development just as much as it’s committing loyalty to your partner.
It’s knowing when your pride is in overdrive and your defenses are clogging your ability to be honest and authentic to yourself and/or to your partner. It is then when communication is extremely helpful. When you can articulate your needs and fears in a de-escalated way and ask for what you need, your partner hears you.
You cannot effectively communicate (or begin the evolution of creating a successful relationship) if you are always defensive, hurtful or shutdown. When you aren’t attune to yourself or are not aware of your behaviors, intentions and needs. This is why I am suggesting that being a “good communicator” is more than just using I statements and actively listening to each other. Being in a successful relationship requires vulnerability and self-awareness within the communication, which only makes it more effective.
CHARACTERISTICS OF A SUCCESSFUL RELATIONSHIP
So what are the characteristics of successful relationships?
In a nutshell, a “successful relationship” is an evolution of two people that accept the same level of commitment, are working on their self-awareness/vulnerability and possess mutual respect for each other. These can look different, varying from relationship to relationship, but as long as both people feel they are on the same page about these characteristics, their relationship is in the green.
The same level of commitment
“The same level of commitment” can look like two people who are in a relationship for the same intention(s). They are both on the same page about these intentions and are very clear in defining and understanding their boundaries. Maybe their only intention is that they love each other and both are comfortable without a right of passage labeling their relationship, (such as buying a home together or getting engaged/married).
Maybe their intentions are that they love each other, but also value the commitment of marriage and are working towards this. This can even look like two people being open about their confusion with commitment and maybe both of their intentions are to just “see where things go.” If both people are on the same page about where they stand within the relationship, the better they will feel secure in exploring, (or expressing their disinterest in continuing in) the other areas of a successful relationship down the road.
To work on self-awareness and vulnerability
“To work on self-awareness and vulnerability” means that both are open to taking accountability for how they show up in the relationship (consciously and subconsciously). Working on self-awareness means that individually, both people are working on healing their past wounds. They are working on being aware of how they might project their unmet needs into the relationship, and they are more attentive to how they feel versus being addicted to an immediate reaction
Working on vulnerability means that each person is working on exposing these emotions, breakthroughs/breakdowns, and needs to their partner as best as they can. By doing so, both people will work better as a team because they’ll have more compassion and understanding, which only fosters deeper intimacy.
To possess mutual respect for each other
“To possess mutual respect for each other” means that both people are not always happy together, but when they are struggling, they can still be respectful. They can still be dignified. This means they don’t physically/emotionally/mentally abuse each other at any cost. They are respectful of each other’s time, needs, boundaries and vulnerabilities.
This does not mean that a couple does not experience rough patches within the relationship that may make both partners forget about their mutual respect for each other, but it does mean that they inherently respect the other person at their core. Respect is something that couples often lose when they are depleted of resources and are burnout individually, or when a rupture or violation of trust has occurred. Respect can be replenished with two people who have the “same level of commitment” and intention in the relationship.
TIPS FOR BUILDING A SUCCESSFUL RELATIONSHIP
So how do you build a successful relationship?
First, you prioritize working on yourself. If you are single, this can look like working with a therapist or coach to help you strengthen your awareness and understanding of yourself, your trauma and/or identify where there might be barriers that are blocking intimacy and closeness with other people. If you are in a relationship, it can also look like working with a therapist or coach, to help both of you work on self-awareness, building trust and more support within the relationship, (even if there isn’t anything “wrong.”).
The foundation of a successful relationship is self-awareness, so it is crucial to start there. Begin asking yourself every day, “What am I feeling?” “Do I know what triggered these feelings?” “Am I expecting my partner to support me?” “What do I need?” “How am I reacting?” Where do these beliefs, needs, expectations come from? Childhood? Abusive past relationship? Both?
I would encourage you to reflect on your own behaviors and possible incongruences with your thoughts, actions and emotions. Especially before you are quick to blame your partner or your lack of partners when you’re feeling really misunderstood or alone. Building understanding within yourself is essential to promoting long-term success in your relationship(s). Check your patterns, your beliefs, your insecurities. Check your behaviors and your defenses. Understand what you need and why you need it. Be honest and vulnerable with yourself and it will take you and your relationship in a whole new direction. It’s terrifying, but it’s worth it!
HOW I FINALLY BUILT A SUCCESSFUL RELATIONSHIP
I personally understand how difficult this process can be.
I have had my share of unhealthy relationship experiences in my past. As I reflect back to my past relationship failures, I can now acknowledge several things that took me years to understand. In those moments, I remember constantly feeling heartbroken, unworthy, insecure and completely unstable. I never felt good enough for any of my “boyfriends” and always felt I had to prove or deny something deep within myself. I stumbled around for years just trying to find a partner who wouldn’t leave me; that was a subconscious need I had that was hindering me from finding a respectful, mutually committed partner. I wasn’t consciously choosing a partner; I was looking for a replacement pacifier to help me self regulate. As you can imagine, not having this awareness only put an insurmountable pressure on my boyfriends (and sometimes my friends). Unfortunately, this only produced the complete opposite outcome and most partners cheated on me, were rarely available or became very mentally abusive. Without self awareness, I didn’t understand why people weren’t showing up for me. This toxic pattern only reinforced that I wasn’t worthy and would never be in a successful relationship.
One day, I decided I needed to choose to be alone. I decided that being alone had to be better than dating men that had the tendency to bring out the worst in me. I was still not aware of how my childhood trauma was causing me to behave in relationships and made this decision partially out of a victimhood mentality. I wrote a list of all the things that I needed and wanted from a relationship. I laughed and then I cried; emotions of hope soon dwindled into sadness as I felt completely torn and discouraged. How would I ever find a relationship like this, did it even exist? I sat with myself every night and through the process of loneliness and my own therapy, I would soon realize that a successful relationship does exist, but it required a whole lot of work on myself to be open to it.
I went to graduate school to become a therapist (who would have thought?) and dug deep within my own process, I attended my own counseling and discovered crucial parts of the puzzle that were missing all along.
I had to establish a positive relationship with myself before I was able to find, create and sustain a healthy relationship with someone else. I had to look in the mirror and take accountability for my inability to process my own emotions and my refusal to be real with myself. I had to take ownership of my pain, insecurities and defenses. I had to accept these [personal] things were a huge contributing factor to my past failed relationships and recognize it wasn’t solely because “I picked the wrong men.”
I was never in a “healthy,” successful relationship until I met my husband. How do I know? Well… Because, when I challenged myself to understand myself better, my self confidence grew and my intention of wanting a relationship shifted significantly. I attracted my husband with genuine qualities versus acts of desperation and insincerity. I was able to soothe myself when I felt uncomfortable, versus relying solely on him to take away my fears and then getting angry with him because he couldn’t. I pushed myself to be vulnerable and took the necessary risks, which helped him understand me and prevented me from exploding with resentment as I used to do in the past. This left little to no room for him to have to make his own assumptions of my reactive behavior.
All of this work I was doing on myself, (and I may add, all of the work he was also doing on himself), made a huge difference in our abilities to get closer to each other. It’s a relationship I never knew was possible. We’ve had our ups and definitely had our downs, but what makes our relationship “successful,” is the evolution of committing our lives to each other, as well as to ourselves. We now have learned throughout the past 12 years how to show up and operate in our most authentic self and we constantly push ourselves to be transparent with each other. We are vulnerable, sometimes emotionally messy, but we are honest and true.
TAKE A STEP TOWARDS YOUR SUCCESSFUL RELATIONSHIP
If you are curious about exploring more closeness and deeper intimacy within your relationship, check out The Modern Love Box. Our sister company offers resources to couples at any stage of the relationship looking for emotional and/or sexual intimacy enhancers. Delivered directly to your home or inbox, our date night boxes can support you in pushing positive boundaries within your relationship to help the two of you connect in deeper ways.